Following the Round 25 action in the Premiership, here’s our five takeaways from a memorable weekend as the season reaches a pivotal stage.
With just one round left to play, the third Premiership semi-finalist was secured, as Harlequins’ 28-24 defeat of Gloucester in a crackerjack at Twickenham saw them join Saracens and Leicester Tigers in the play-offs.
However, with Northampton Saints battling to the death and earning two points in a rollercoaster match at StoneX Stadium, which saw Saracens triumph 42-38, the East Midlands club are well in the title race.
Gloucester’s defeat by Harlequins meant Northampton needed only five points from their final two matches to secure fourth place. With the bonus-points gained at Saracens they only require three more in their last match at home to Newcastle to gain that last place.
Crucially, Saracens’ win ensures that they will play their semi-final at home, along with Leicester Tigers, who secured their berth a couple of weeks ago.
The summer social
Yet again, Quins delivered a highlight of the Premiership season in a new take on their temporary residence at Twickenham Stadium. Yet again the ‘comeback kings’ lived up to their title, this time overcoming a 17-point half-time deficit to win 28-24 – their eighth successive victory at the home of England Rugby.
Gloucester were superb in the first half – their much vaunted maul and physicality seeing them stun Quins in the opening exchanges – as Ben Morgan rumbled over, soon to be followed by two rather more stylish tries from Chris Harris and Freddie Clarke.
With Danny Care and Marcus Smith once more finding their zip in the second half to have a big impact on the Quins fightback, it was England centre Joe Marchant that caught the eye, as he bagged a brace but put in a performance of all-round brilliance as he dominated in the air, defended brilliantly and attacked with huge effectiveness.
Eddie Jones is said to have rested a few players as he knows their worth; on Saturday’s showing Marchant did enough for most sane selectors to have him nailed on in England’s three quarter line and it’s really only now a matter of which number he wears on the white shirt.
While it’s not a done deal yet, Northampton are one of the form sides of the country. Yes, they lost to Saracens and at one point, seemed as if they might be on the end of a hammering. But there’s something about their style and attacking intent that makes you want to both watch them and love them, as yet again they played without any form of fear in their backline.
On Saturday, the pace and vision of their backs, driven by Alex Mitchell and controlled by Dan Biggar, was something to behold and their late rally against one of the most organised defences around showed just how brilliant they are in unlocking defences.
Aaron Hinckley’s loan addition to the squad has also given them some real gas and spike on the openside flank and with two internationals in Lewis Ludlam and Courtney Lawes alongside him, Saint have a loose trio of the highest quality.
Newcastle Falcons can’t wait for 2021/22 to come to an end, but with it will come the end of Dean Richards’ 10-year reign as the longest serving director of rugby in the Premiership. With many others, including defence coach Nick Easter also leaving the club, you could argue that they’ll want to give a few old stagers a send off with an away win.
Saints may be one of the best attacking sides in the Premiership, but their pack and front-row in particular are less than solid. With Falcons powerful in the tight and boasting some international standard front-rowers, this game may not be the forgone conclusion that some may be thinking.
Although referees always have a tough job, all spectators want is for them to have less of an impact on the game as possible. Sadly, on Friday night, the yellow card dismissal of Wasps‘ Alfie Barbeary for a so-called deliberate knock on had a quantum effect on the match. There’s a climate of acceptance now that should a player go for a legitimate intercept and fails, that a penalty or card will follow.
The law says that a player should be penalised if he deliberately knocks the ball forward. In the case of many players going for marginal intercepts, it is rarely, if ever, the case that their intention is to knock the ball forward. Their primary intention is to intercept and catch the ball, an action that might be defined literally by a millimetre either way.
On Friday, the TMO concluded, ‘Yes he’s going with one hand, so therefore it’s a deliberate knock on.’ At no point in the laws does it mention one hand as being any form of definition so why this was mentioned is quite confusing. In fact, most intercepts start with a one handed catch so using that as a benchmark is ridiculous.
An intercept is a feat of skill and a thrilling move. Consistently penalising players for trying to intercept and failing, then claiming incorrectly that they were deliberately knocking on, is a misuse of the existing wording of the law. The game needs either to clarify the law so the players fully understand it or stop interpreting it completely wrongly as they are currently.
One thing that any watcher of this weekend would have concluded is that Care and Mitchell are the two best available English scrum-halves in the Premiership. Mitchell may be in Jones’ thoughts, but the door, it appears, remains firmly bolted in Care’s face, despite it being him that spends the season igniting the talents of Smith, Marchant and Alex Dombrandt. He is the missing piece in the Jones jigsaw and alongside Mitchell, he must tour Australia in July.
Elsewhere, Joe Marler answered his ‘resting’ with the absolute destruction of the Gloucester scrummage once he rumbled on after 20 minutes, but in defeat, Ollie Thorley and Lewis Ludlow reminded England of their previous dalliances with great performances.
Saracens were once the backbone of the England side, and Nick Isiekwe, Owen Farrell and the evergreen Mako Vunipola emphasised that they once again are in tip top form.
With Care, Smith, Farrell and Marchant all excelling this weekend, the Red Rose midfield has rarely looked so well defined. However, at the moment of writing, the chances of this combination taking the field for the first Test in Australia looks remote and the only people that will be delighted about that is England’s opposition.